My Debt to Corky: On Loving Mayo Thompson’s Corky’s Debt to His Father

Bryan Bierman finds out what it’s like to love an album for years – and then talk to the man who made it.

Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you fall in love with an album. It might not be immediate. Sometimes it can take months, even years, but you realize you’ve become obsessed. Lyrics not memorized, but internalized.

Mayo Thompson’s Corky’s Debt to His Father is one of these albums for me.

So when I call up Thompson and he eventually asks me, “Are you disappointed to hear what I say about it, given what you’d thought about it?” I can’t help but take a moment to think about the question carefully.

Corky’s Debt to His Father is Mayo Thompson’s only solo album. Recorded after his groundbreaking group Red Krayola was put on a brief hold, it received a release via a small independent label in 1970, then went out-of-print for many years. It got into the right hands, though: Philip Glass was a fan, as was Pere Ubu, who re-recorded a track from the album during Thompson’s stint with the band in the early ’80s. Later in that decade, it was finally re-released on the London-based indie Glass Records, then saw its biggest audience with another reissue by Drag City in 1994. (It proved to be popular enough to warrant yet another pressing in 2008.)

Musically, Corky’s Debt creates its own universe, where weird folk music and proto-punk anthems sit side-by-side. While you have typical verse/chorus/verse structures, they’re upended by sexual lyrics. It was a far cry from what Thompson had done in the previous few years alongside Steve Cunningham and Frederick Barthelme as part of Red Krayola. Influenced equally by modern classical and free jazz as they were by rock, the trio sounded like no one else in the late ’60s.

“People understood very well [during its time], they just didn’t like it!”

Mayo Thompson

But despite getting together at a moment when music audiences were more open-minded than ever, Red Krayola was a tough sell. After a performance at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1967 a woman claimed their feedback-laden freak-outs had killed her dog. Nowadays, the group’s work is consistently referred to as “ahead of his time.” Thompson disagrees. “People understood very well [during its time], they just didn’t like it!”

By 1969, Red Krayola seemed to be more no more. “It was kind of a moot point,” Thompson says. “There wasn’t anything going on, so I just drifted off and did other things.” After he recorded Corky’s Debt, those “other things” included working with artist Robert Rauschenberg in New York in the early ’70s; working and producing for Rough Trade in late ’70s London; living in Germany with artist Albert Oehlen during the late ’80s; and teaching politics and music at a California art school during the ’90s and ’00s. Along the way, he also resurrected Red Krayola, who began making music that was better and more visceral than the bands attempting to emulate what Thompson had already done over a decade before.

Thompson has a deep Texas accent and is incredibly genial over the phone when I first talk to him. For some reason, I refer to him as Mr. Thompson automatically. I’ve never done this to any other person I’ve interviewed, though I’ve never idolized anyone I’ve gotten to talk to as much as him. Also, he was a teacher, so maybe it’s that.

I’m finally talking to Mr. Thompson because he’s getting set to perform Corky’s Debt in its entirety for the first time ever at the 2013 Cropped Out Festival. He’s not entirely sure what will happen. “My voice is gone, dude. That boy’s gone. But the feelings are still there. And there might be a tiny tinge of irony, a tiny tinge of regret, a tiny tinge of guilt or shame. Might choke up, might cry. Who knows?”

When I ask about the recording of Corky’s, he explains it was a response to the time period. “Altamont had taken the wind out of the sails of the Flower Power movement and all of the hubris about it. We were on the verge of the ’70s, everybody had to make up their mind. ‘Are you interested in fire? What about the wheel? What do you think about can openers?’ Everything had to be rethought in some sort of way. And I think that that record for me was, like all records I’ve made, they were records of what I think is possible.”

“My voice is gone, dude. That boy’s gone. But the feelings are still there.”

Mayo Thompson

Looking at the album’s lyrics, there’s an immense amount of heartbreak and fighting of loneliness. I try to get him to talk about his personal life during the recording. However, Thompson speaks about the philosophical and social aspects of the record for most of our conversation, before he pauses and asks me that question. “Are you disappointed to hear what I say about it, given what you’d thought about it?” After a moment, I respond, “Not disappointed. It’s interesting that you would say it’s personal, but not in the way I thought it was. I thought it would be more of ‘Your girlfriend broke up with you.’” I laugh at how trivial this sounds.

“All of that stuff happened,” he tells me. “Betty is somebody. Venus, we all know who she is, she’s the goddess of love. ... I can tell you stories about my life, but I don’t think they would explain anything, just a litany of tragic events.”

And I realize he’s right. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you need it explained. Does a lyric like “I’m so worried / Yes, I am worried / I’m so worried, I told you I was worried” really need a name or narrative attached to it? If it already means the world to you, what else could you possibly ask from it?

Cropped Out is held at the American Turners Club in Louisville, right on the bank of the Ohio River. About 45 minutes before he’s to go on, I see Thompson by himself, staring out to the water, right behind the stage where his band is setting up. He looks like a character in a Raymond Chandler novel – long black coat, pressed shirt, nice shoes and sunglasses.

The band takes the stage after the sun’s gone down: Guitarist Tom Watson, drummer John McEntire and bassist Bill Bowman join Mayo and original pianist Joe Dugan, the man who wrote the ethereal horn parts on my favorite track from the album, “Dear Betty Baby.” In front of Thompson is a music stand with his iPad, containing the lyrics. (Later on, the iPad runs out of juice, and somebody in the crowd helps hold Thompson’s notebook of lyrics open during the set.) Before they start, I hear someone in the crowd say, “I sort of can’t believe I’m getting to see this.”

“I’m a student of human nature,” Thompson starts, and the album begins. There’s an energy to the songs. The group comes off a bit like the world’s best bar band. (When I talk to Mayo a few weeks later, this was one of his criticisms of the show.) The crowd loves it, Mayo is having a ball, and I made sure not to publicly cry during “Dear Betty Baby.” In the middle of the set, I notice Mayo say to himself while tuning up, “My goodness, this is strange.”

This man can’t be 69 years old. He seems like he’s about to duckwalk across the stage.

Riverboats are passing behind the band as they tear through “Black Legs,” turning the solo acoustic tune into a full electric blues groove. During the closer, “Worried, Worried,” he seems to have turned into a crazed preacher right before our eyes. This man can’t be 69 years old. He seems like he’s about to duckwalk across the stage.

As the set ends, he hugs his band members in congratulations. A stream of people come up to Thompson with their copies of the album to sign. I find the guy who couldn’t believe he was getting to see this. His name is Chris Berry, and he drove down from Minneapolis just for the show. “I guess [Corky’s] came on my radar during college. I still have my old copy from Glass Records from the ’80s. There’s always been something special about this record. It’s got that cosmic American twinkle that a lot of stuff can never touch.” I ask him what he thought about the show and he speaks for both of us, “I’m sort of in disbelief, but it was perfect.”

Thompson is practically bounding after the show and gladly brings me up to the dressing room area, though not before getting stopped by more and more fans. When we finally get in the elevator, he turns to me – “That’s the one thing I know about show business,” as the door closes, “at some point, it’s over.”

In the dressing room, Thompson and Joe Dugan are reminiscing about recording the album like a pair of old war buddies. Duggan is thoroughly hilarious, cracking jokes and telling stories about his early days in the music business, recording bubblegum hits. It turns out, before the rehearsals, the two hadn’t seen each other in about 40 years.

Thompson sums up his feelings about the show in one word: “relieved.” Dugan agrees, explaining that they “had a significant amount of worry about it. After 40 years, it was really hard to bring this stuff all back to consciousness.” I tell them about the amount of people that traveled from all over the country to get here. Thompson’s a little shocked. “There’s some loonies out there who love Red Krayola and like me for some damn strange reason. I don’t know.”

As it turns out, Dugan and Mayo tell me a story about their waiter at breakfast that morning. After overhearing them discuss music and asking them who they were, the waiter yelled in shock, “That record?! That’s been my favorite record for, like, the last year!”

We part ways to go watch the rest of the bands. During Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney’s Superwolf set, I look over to see Mayo filming them on his iPhone. He glances at me, gives me a final wink, and is gone as quickly as he appeared.

By Bryan Bierman on November 4, 2013